Thursday, 8 August 2019

Kobo's four standout features

Overall, as I've argued before, Kindle's e-reading software is more advanced than Nickel (Kobo's operating system). Kobo, however, offers four key features that Amazon, at the moment, doesn't match:
  1. OverDrive integration: It is only possible to borrow e-books to read on a Kindle e-reader in the US. Also, the feature is not neatly integrated into the software as it is on a Kobo e-reader. To borrow an e-book on a Kindle e-reader, the user needs to first access the document on OverDrive and then go through checkout to send it to the required device. On a Kobo e-reader, in comparison, OverDrive is integrated into the device's software, and it is possible to borrow books from the Kobo store. Further, it is also possible to borrow an e-book on Libby and then automatically sync it to a Kobo e-reader. 
  2. TypeGenius: Kobo's TypeGenius is a feature that provides a scale to adjust font-weight, font size, line spacing, margins and justification. The scale is not precise as it could be, but it is still significantly better than Amazon's restrictive and limited settings.  
  3. Installation of add-ons: Kobo e-readers are relatively open, and it is easy to install add-on software, e.g., KOReader, and patch the code to access hidden features. The newer Kindles, in comparison, are challenging to jailbreak; this means most users are restricted to using the native software to read PDF documents. Kindle's PDF reader, relative to Kobo, is usable, but KOReader is far better for reading PDF documents. 
  4. Pocket integration: Sending articles to a Kindle e-reader is possible via the Send to Kindle browser add-on or using Automata's Pocket to Kindle application. In comparison, Kobo seamlessly integrates Pocket articles in a designated articles section. This means saved Pocket articles automatically sync and can be managed directly on a Kobo e-reader without requiring the use of add-ons or third-party applications. 

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Lenovo C330 Chromebook: The best budget convertible Chromebook?

The key to serviceable budget technology is cutting the right corners. Expectedly, devices priced lower will make compromises, but the critical issue is if any of these compromises dramatically affect usability. For example, a 2GB RAM Windows 10 laptop or Chromebook is not an option.

The Lenovo C330 is an example of a Chromebook that makes the right compromises. I’ve recently been using the C330, and my impressions are positive. The 4GB RAM and 32GB storage, considering this is a Chromebook, are both enough (there is a 64GB version of the C330). It is also possible to expand storage via a full-size SD Card slot. The screen isn’t full HD, but it is an IPS one with good colour reproduction and viewing angles. Again, Lenovo made the right compromise as a non-IPS screen would be unusable on a convertible Chromebook. Importantly performance from the quad-core Mediatek MT8173 processor is adequate. Performance is closer to a quad-core Intel Celeron Apollo Lake N3450 than the slower Celeron N3350. The laptop weighs 1.2 KG – it is not the lightest in this category but still portable to be easily carried.

There is no stylus input control, but the C330 is a convertible with a touch screen. Many popular Android applications are not supported on non-touch Chromebooks, and this makes a touch screen an essential hardware feature. Further, the touch interface vastly enhances the user experience on Android applications. From an e-reading perspective, it is possible, for example, to install Xodo Reader, Moon+ Reader, Kindle, Kobo, Libby and One Note. The possibility to install One Drive, Google Drive and Dropbox also mean it is possible to sync page location and annotations between e-books and PDF documents.

Lenovo, like most vendors, over-estimates the battery life to be ‘up to 10 hours’. In real use, the C330 gets a full day of mixed-use. With extra care, for example, turning down brightness closer to 25% and turning off WiFi when not needed, battery life can be extended closer to the 10 hours mark. The C330 charges via USB-C; the charger provided is on the larger side, but I found smaller high-powered third-party USB-C chargers work too.

Overall, the Lenovo C330 is a budget convertible Chromebook that makes the right compromises and gets the basics right. It has a nice screen, enough power, ample storage, USB-C charging, good battery life and a touch screen that provides access to most Android applications. The Lenovo C330 is an excellent all-rounder Chromebook.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Likebook Muses review: Another Boyue e-reader let down by software problems

The Likebook Muses is Boyue’s 7.8-inch e-reader that supports stylus input. The Likebook Muses looks and feels different than the Likebook Mars (previously reviewed here). It is heavier than the Likebook Mars and only comes in white. Both devices, however, run near identical software. The key difference between both being extra stylus input features.

Hardware 

The Likebook Muses is slightly heavier than most 7.8-inch e-readers. It weighs 286 Grams; in comparison, the Onyx Boox Nova Pro weighs 240 grams. The Likebook Muses, like other Android e-readers, runs on a powerful processor - in this case, it is an octa-core Freescale RK3365. Accordingly, performance is a strong point, and any noticeable slowdown is due to the inherent limitations of E-Ink technology or problems with software optimisation. Again, like other Android e-readers, the Likebook Muses has 2GB RAM that makes multitasking, when needed, smooth. However, in real-world use, the extra RAM doesn’t make a significant difference to a note-taking e-reader. To compare, reMarkable functions on 512 MB DDR3L RAM.

A big plus is the Likebook Muses’s screen. The screen doesn’t suffer from the slight blurriness I’ve noticed on Onyx Boox and Boyue e-readers (the issue is more pronounced with Boyue e-readers). Yes, on paper, the Muses has the same 300 PPI E-Ink Carta screen that you get with newer e-readers. However, in real-world use, the text is clearer and comparable to the Kobo Aura One and Kobo Forma. Reading on the Likebook Muses, due to the sharpness and clarity of the text, is a pleasant experience.

The built-in front light is not very good. It is not even, and there is no option, by default, to mix white and warmer colours. The Onyx Boox Nova's front light, in comparison, is significantly better and allows the syncing of colours. I also noticed that the Likebook Muses’s screen sometimes doesn’t register touches. However, the issue might be related to the specific unit I was using.

Finally, battery life is substandard for an e-reader, but this is a problem with Android e-readers in general and not just the Likebook Muses. I would estimate battery life to be two to three days of regular use when using the device as an e-reader. However, when using the device to do tablet tasks, e.g., browsing the web, the battery life is in hours.

Software 

As noted, the Likebook Muses’s software is near identical to the Likebook Mars. Thus, as I’ve reviewed the Likebook Mars before, there is no need to repeat the positives and negatives of Boyue’s firmware. In this review, I will concentrate on the Muses’s note-taking capabilities.

The note-taking application is integrated into the Muses’s home screen interface. In the application, it is possible to create notebooks. The expected note-taking features are present: the ability to choose the pen input style according to pressure sensitivity, line thickness, notebook templates (e.g., lined or non-lined), draw shapes, move items around and add pages to a notebook. There is also the option to export notebooks to Evernote to access them from other devices.

The screen, due to its smooth texture, means writing on the device doesn’t feel natural. The Muses is a note-taking e-reader and, accordingly, Boyue should’ve adapted the screen’s texture and finish.

Stylus input in PDF documents, on the other hand, is a weak point. The Muses does not support stylus input after choosing one of the zoom-in options, e.g. zoom-to-width. The supported zoom options for stylus input are restricted to cropping and pinch-to-zoom. It is frustrating to use stylus input after using pinch-to-zoom due to the absence of a page lock feature (to compare, the Onyx Boox Nova supports the lock feature). The page lock feature is essential in a zoomed-in page as it prevents the page moving when scrolling, writing in or navigating a document. Due to the smaller 7.8-inch screen, the unneeded restrictions on using the stylus in specific zoom modes, as noted, is a significant software weakness.

Another problem – this also applies to the Likebook Mars – is the slow rendering of PDF pages. The slowness is due to a slight delay before turning to the next page of a PDF document. After a page turn, the user is prompted that the device is accessing the page from the memory cache. This problem is not hardware related as it did not exist before the latest firmware update. Further, I did not experience the rendering problem when using KOReader.

As the Muses is the first note-taking e-reader I’ve used, I don’t have a broader perspective on how it compares to other note-taking e-readers. Nevertheless, just from using the Likebook Muses, input was smooth and with no lag. The biggest problem, in my view, is the restrictions Boyue’s software imposes on note-taking in PDF documents.

Third-party applications 

It appears stylus-input is restricted to Boyue’s native software. For example, I tested stylus input in OneNote without success. Overall, I don’t think this lack of support is an issue as most Android applications are unusable on e-readers. Stylus input in KOReader would be useful, but the application doesn’t yet support the feature.

Compatible Android applications – e.g., KOReader, Moon Reader Pro and Libera Pro – all work well. For a list of recommended applications, click here. Like other Android e-readers, ghosting is an issue in third-party applications.

Verdict 

The Likebook Muses, in terms of hardware and software, is like Mars but adds stylus input. Stylus input is smooth and works well, but the biggest negative is the under-developed software. The restriction on using the stylus in a PDF document is a significant drawback. Add to this the slow rendering of PDF pages and note-taking in PDF documents becomes frustrating. On the positive side, the noted issues are not hardware related and can be resolved with a software update. However, these issues should not exist in the first place, and the user should not need to wait for updates to solve these problems.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

The Kindle Oasis 2: Is it a good buy now the Oasis 3 has been released?

I’ve previously stated that the Kindle Oasis 2, considering its features, didn’t offer value. However, does the reduced £200 price of the Oasis 2 (8GB version), after the release of the Oasis 3, make the device a better proposition? Overall, I find the Kobo H20 (Edition 2) to be the better option. It is £50 cheaper, and you still get most of the Oasis 2’s features: waterproofing, 8GB storage and near same screen size. The Kobo H20’s slightly lower 265 PPI isn’t significant to make a difference; further, the Kobo H20, in contrast to the Oasis 2, does support white and warm lighting. Plus, you can easily install KOReader to read PDF documents on the H20 (Edition 2). Newer Kindle e-readers are more challenging to jailbreak to install KOReader. 

For the user invested in the Kindle eco-system, the price differential between the Kindle Paperwhite and Oasis 2 is now £80. I think the price difference is justifiable, considering the extra amount gets a larger screen and better front lighting. I am not a fan of the Oasis 2 and Kobo H20’s screens, but they are not bad (the contrast could be better on both devices). Also, the Kobo H20 (Edition 2) has a darker screen.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Android e-readers & rotation control

I've used Boyue and Onyx Boox Android e-readers, and both lack the feature to universally control rotation. The option to control rotation is only available in the native e-reading application.

The missing rotation feature is essential as it means there is no way to rotate the screen when using some third-party applications (some applications, e.g., Moon+ Reader, natively support the feature). For example, writing in landscape mode is not supported in Writer Plus (the developers appear to assume that all Android devices support auto-rotation by default).

It is possible to install a third-party application to manage rotation - e.g., Rotation Control - but these applications don't seamlessly integrate into the default interface of Onyx and Boyue e-readers. Specifically, in the case of Rotation Control, I found it necessary to continuously re-start the application.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Amazon's Alexa focus

I haven't used the Kindle Voyage but heard a lot about its excellent screen that no subsequent Kindle matches. The Voyage was released late 2014 in a hardware event that also announced the Fire HD 7, Fire HD 6 and an updated Fire HDX 8.9. The Fire HD 6 and HD 7 were budget tablets but had good screens that surpass the current Fire 7 and Fire HD 8. The Fire HDX 8.9 (4th generation) is, without question, the best and last premium Fire tablet released by Amazon. One HDX 8.9 (4th generation) feature that I particularly liked was the dynamic light control that was integrated into the Kindle reading application. The dynamic light control, preceding Apple's True Tone display, changed the white colour of the tablet's screen to match the colour and warmth of its surrounding ambient light. In the words of Amazon:
The new Fire HDX 8.9 now features Dynamic Light Control, which changes the white point of the display, matching its colour and warmth to the ambient light of your surroundings in order to make the display more closely resemble a piece of paper—this makes the best reading experience on a tablet even better.
The Fire HDX 8.9 also featured dynamic image contrast that according to Amazon, "automatically optimises the color of each pixel based on the amount of light in your surroundings". 

All these devices, including the Kindle Voyage, as noted, were announced late 2014 in a designated hardware event. Amazon no longer hosts events to announce the release of Fire tablets or e-readers. Instead, the focus is now focused on Alexa supported smart devices. The shift in focus also meant Amazon no longer attempts to significantly innovate with its Fire tablets and Kindle e-readers. This change in direction is further confirmed in the recent release of an updated Kindle Oasis that is near identical to the previous generation but with an added adjustable warm light. The adjustable warm light feature, to compare, was first announced by Kobo when it released the Kobo Aura ONE in August 2016.    

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Review of the 10th generation Kindle Basic: Good front light adds value

The Kindle Basic isn’t just the 8th generation Kindle Basic plus a front light. There are subtle differences that make a difference. The positives are the front light and ergonomics of the e-reader. The main negative is text contrast and font rendering.

 Even and gentle front light 

The Paperwhite's front light has an extra LED light – five against the Kindle Basic’s four LEDs – and is noticeably better. The front light on the Kindle Basic, despite one less LED, is surprisingly good, gentle and even. For many users, the front light is an important feature and the main reason that many users didn’t purchase the Basic in the past. Of course, this is personal preference, but I would’ve liked to see an updated Kindle with a 220 PPI screen rather than adding front light functionality. Below is a front light comparison picture between the Kindle Basic and the Kindle Paperwhite (click on the picture to enlarge):

Front light comparison: Kindle Paperwhite's (left) Vs. Kindle Basic (right) 
Compact design 

I like the design of the latest Kindle Basic. The previous generation – like the Fire tablets – had a utilitarian design. This generation gets a makeover and has extra rounded corners and is thinner. It is also slightly more compact and can fit in a large pocket. A small negative, despite the dimensions being smaller than the previous generation, is the weight increase to 174 grams (the previous generation weighed 161 grams).

Text rendering is a negative 

Amazon doesn't officially state if the 10th generation Kindle has a Carta screen but does advertise an updated screen with the latest electronic ink technology for better contrast. In reality, I found the text on the Kindle Basic appears ‘greyish black’ – it is also faded in comparison to the previous generation. The problem might be inherent to the screen – i.e., the extra layer for the front light – or possibly remedied by a software update to improve and optimise font rendering on the lower resolution screen.

Due to the lack of contrast text bolding is required for better legibility and even then, it doesn’t resolve the lack of clarity and darkness. To enhance legibility, I sideloaded modified versions of Charis and Constantia fonts that come with added weight.

The first picture below shows the faded appearance of the screen. The second picture shows a comparison between the previous and the latest generation Kindle Basic (click on pictures to enlarge):

The Kindle's text appears faded  

Text contrast comparison: Kindle 8th generation (left) Vs. Kindle 10th generation (right)
Other problems 

I am not going to talk about the Kindle’s firmware features in this review as they have been covered in previous reviews of Kindle devices. The firmware, being near identical to other Kindle e-readers, is stable and feature-rich. However, there are problems that I find frustrating about Amazon’s firmware:
  1. Font & page settings need to be expanded: This includes font options, margin settings and line spacing. As the same font and page settings can be rendered differently between e-books the software's narrow pre-set options are often inadequate. Android e-reading applications, e.g., Moon+ Reader, allow the user to customise font size, line spacing and margins to the narrowest degree. Further, Kobo, despite having limitations too, provides a scale that allows better control over font and page settings. 
  2. The recent support of font bolding and the option to sideload fonts only work with Amazon's AZW3 file format. Many users with a library of MOBI e-books before the update are, therefore, left without no option to bold fonts or use side-loaded ones. Recognizing this issue, the software prompts the user to use Amazon Ember Bold in unsupported files, but this is restrictive and Amazon Ember Bold doesn’t render well in some e-books. 
  3. There is no file manager to navigate and categorise sideloaded books: The lack of a file manager means it is necessary to manually add sideloaded e-books to collections. 
  4.  Sideloaded books do not automatically upload and sync to the user’s Kindle account. To get an e-book archived and synced it is necessary to either send it to the Kindle’s designated email or via the Send to Kindle application (Calibre can also be used to send e-books to a Kindle). Accordingly, for the new user, with a large library, it is a hassle to get their personal documents to archive to the right collection on their Amazon account. 
Verdict 

Many users wanted a front light but didn’t need the waterproofing, extra storage and extra PPI of the Kindle Paperwhite. Amazon responded and updated the Kindle Basic with a very good front light. The updated design and smaller footprint make this device comfortable to hold and carry.

The biggest negative, in my view, is the Kindle Basic’s screen. It is not the relatively low resolution – I believe electronic ink handles lower resolutions better than LCD screens – but the text’s lack of clarity and contrast. It is possible this is a firmware issue and can be resolved by an update that optimises the pre-installed fonts for the low-resolution screen, e.g., by increasing the default font-weight.